Safety behaviors are the actions we take in order to escape or avoid anxious situations. There are times when it isn’t possible to avoid anxious situations but it doesn’t mean safety-seeking behaviors diminish, they simply take a different form.
Avoidance is a perfectly natural reaction to the things that cause us emotional upset. It has to be said that avoidance is a highly successful way of coping with intense anxiety so as a short-term fix it takes some beating. Over time however this becomes much more of a problem. If it’s likely you will keep encountering the same issues that cause anxiety, your anxiety will only worsen.
It’s one thing making a detour to avoid crossing a bridge, or taking the stairs because you don’t like the elevator, but there are many everyday issues that are more socially complex and simply can’t be walked around or ignored. Here are a few examples:
Many students find standing in front of a large group of their peers a daunting prospect. In my previous life as an academic I witnessed various safety behaviors surrounding performance anxiety. Every student was required to undertake several presentations so there was no avoiding it. In these circumstances the most common safety behavior was speaking quickly, head down and eyes fixed on notes in order to avoid eye contact. It allowed the student to finish quickly and escape the situation they found threatening. Other in-class avoidance techniques included avoiding eye contact with me when I asked for comments or observations. Some students sat right at the back hoping distance would help, and I’m sure there were many more examples.
Whether you take a stiff drink before going into a meeting or avoid caffeine in case it increases anxiety the_principles_ are pretty much the same. Some people volunteer for unappealing tasks because it will prevent or reduce social contact. Ducking out of social engagements, wearing dull clothing so as not to attract attention, choosing the right words so as to avoid humiliation, it’s all about self-control and using behaviors that avoid disapproval.
Reducing safety behaviors can help reduce anxiety and one way of doing this, with supportive guidance, is via a process called graded-exposure therapy.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.